Recommended Books for Beginner Buddhists

New to Buddhism? Here Are Places to Begin Learning

In the West, many of us begin our journey with Buddhism by reading a book. For me, the book was The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hahn. For you, it may have been (or will be) another book. I don't claim to know what the "best" beginner Buddhist book might be, because I think that is an individual matter. Sometimes a particular book will touch one person deeply but entirely "miss" another person. That said, all of the books listed here are good, and maybe one is the book that will touch you.

In The Buddha and His Teachings, editors Bercholz and Kohn have compiled a wonderful "overview" book on Buddhism. It presents essays from modern-day teachers of many Buddhist traditions, both Theravada and Mahayana, along with brief selections from ancient texts. The authors of the essays include Bhikku Bodhi, Ajahn Chah, Pema Chodron, the 14th Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Shunryu Suzuki, and Chogyam Trungpa.

The book begins with a brief biography of the historical Buddha and an explanation of how Buddhism grew and developed. Part II explains the basic teachings. Part III focuses on the development of Mahayana, and Part IV introduces the reader to Buddhist tantra.

The Ven. Thubten Chodron is an ordained nun in the Tibetan Gelugpa tradition. She is also a California native who taught in the Los Angeles school system before she began her Buddhist practice. Since the 1970s she has studied with many of the great teachers of Tibetan Buddhism, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Today she writes and travels, teaching Buddhism, and she is the founder of Sravasti Abbey near Newport, Washington.

In Buddhism for Beginners Chodron presents the basics of Buddhism in a conversational, question-and-answer format. People who recommend this book say the author does a good job of clearing up misunderstandings about Buddhism and providing a Buddhist perspective on modern issues.

The Ven. Thich Nhat Hahn is a Vietnamese Zen master and peace activist who has written several excellent books. The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching is a good companion book to read after The Miracle of Mindfulness.

In Heart of the Buddha's Teaching Thich Nhat Hahn walks the reader through the foundational doctrines of Buddhism, beginning with the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Three Jewels, the Five Skandhas or Aggregates, and more.

First published in 1975, this small, simple, clear book has been on many "best beginner Buddhist book" lists ever since. Its simplicity is, in some ways, deceptive. Within its wise advice for living a happier and more grounded life, attentive to the present moment, are some of the most lucid explanations of basic Buddhist teachings I have seen anywhere.

I recommend following this book with either The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching or Walpola Rahula's What the Buddha Taught.

People who enjoyed Open Heart, Clear Mind say it provides an easy-to-read, conversational introduction to basic Buddhism, grounded in practical application to everyday life. Chodron emphasizes the psychological rather than the mystical aspects of Buddhist practice, which readers say makes her book more personal and more accessible than loftier works by other great teachers.

Jack Kornfield, a psychologist, learned Buddhism as a monk in the Theravada monasteries of Thailand, India and Burma. A Path With Heart, subtitled A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life, shows us how a practice centered in meditation can help us stop being at war with ourselves and lead a more open-hearted life.

Kornfield emphasizes psychological aspects of Buddhist practice. Readers looking for more information on Theravada doctrines might want to read A Path With Heart together with Walpola Rahula's What the Buddha Taught.

Walpola Rahula (1907-1997) was a Theravada monk and scholar of Sri Lanka who became a professor of history and religions at Northwestern University. In What the Buddha Taught, the professor explains the basic teachings of the historical Buddha, as recorded in the earliest Buddhist scriptures.

What the Buddha Taught has been my handbook to basic Buddhism for many years. I use it so much as a reference that I wore out two copies and am now wearing out a third. When I have a question about a term or a doctrine, this is the first reference book I turn to for a basic explanation. If I were teaching a college-level "introduction to Buddhism" class, this would be required reading.